Evoking a People-centric Landscape Design
Landscape Architect and designer of public spaces that enrich the community through landscape architecture and urban design, Thomas Balsley has reshaped social and cultural spaces around the world by sparking the public’s imagination. By Priyal Sood
“Public spaces should reflect our civic values, our sense of place, and our commitment to the quality of life we have promised all citizens.”
Founder and Principal Landscape Architect
Thomas Balsley is the founder and principal architect of the award-winning New York-based urban landscape architecture firm – Thomas Balsley Associates which has now merged with SWA to become SWA/BALSLEY. This architects’ work often exists in the margins of the city, the industrial edges, the waterfronts, and vestigial spaces found in and around the urban grid.
The well-renowned designer has been in this industry for 35 years and designed over a hundred public spaces, waterfront parks, plazas, and urban parks in New York alone. The Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park has won numerous awards including the Design Excellence Award by the NYC Public Design Commission and Best Landscape Award by Architect’s Newspaper.
The architect explains why during Hurricane Sandy, the Hunter’s Point Park survived even after being under four feet of water and then drained as it was designed to. He says that the design approach was underpinned to sustainability with enough focus on the environmental and ecological to social, economic, and cultural.
“Part of our job when we work anywhere near the shores is to anticipate the effects of global warming, the storm surges,” he said.
An international model of urban ecology and a laboratory for innovative sustainable thinking, Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park is a master plan that encompasses the transformation of 30 acres of post-industrial waterfront on the East River in Long Island City and includes the largest affordable housing building project in New York City since the 1970s. Surrounded by water on three sides, the design incorporates numerous green initiatives, transforming a critically located but underutilized waterfront characterized by long-term disinvestment into a new urban ecological paradigm. The site is waterfront and city, gateway and sanctuary, a blank slate, and pentimento. Two hundred years ago, the area was a series of wetlands. The site’s more recent industrial identity reflects its strategic proximity to waterfront and rail exchange, eliminating all signs of its ecologically rich history. Today, this legacy presents a paradox—the park design leverages its layered histories and spectacular views to establish a resilient, multi-layered recreational, and cultural destination. Adjacent to a new school, public library, and emerging residential development of 5,000 permanently affordable units, the park now provides a public front door and new open spaces for recreation at the heart of a growing community.
SCALE had the opportunity to have a discussion with Thomas Balsley about his experience and challenges faced while designing a public space.
SCALE: Who is Thomas Balsley? Why did you choose to practice landscape architecture?
Thomas Balsley: I am the principal designer and founder of SWA/Balsley. Landscape Architecture seemed to be a perfect fit for my attraction to architecture and nature and my artistic skills. My love of the city and concerns for social issues called me to NYC to open a studio after graduation from SUNY at Syracuse University. NYC’s public spaces of the 1970s were under siege and the recipients of most of our social ills. Rather than aspirational, there was a general defensive design approach as exemplified in the uninviting barren lifeless plazas as building foregrounds.
SCALE: Thomas Balsley completes 40 years in the design industry this year. Could you tell us how the design thinking of public spaces has evolved since then?
Thomas Balsley: With the revitalization of cities, public spaces have come a more people-centric design response that fosters the vibrant public life and environmental sustainability of the 21st-century city.
SCALE: The Riverside Park South is just one of the many 100 parks and plazas designed by you in New York City. Which are the main values, core concepts, or style inclinations that will always be represented by you?
Thomas Balsley: Hunter’s Point South Park is a model for resilient, social, cultural, and environmental strategies such as landscape narratives of place, common social ground, and waterfront resiliency with broad public benefits beyond “keeping dry”. These values have always been at the forefront of my design approach.
SCALE: What are some of the basic challenges you face while designing a public space?
Thomas Balsley: Much of my work has entailed the “forensics and fixing” of failed public spaces. To ensure success in this arena, one must first believe that it is measured by a sustained public embrace which can only come from a meaningful public process. Design excellence can sometimes be diluted by public input. The camel is a horse designed by a committee. Can the designer reconcile and fuse both goals into the sustained public embrace of programme and imagination?
SCALE: Taking into consideration the current pandemic situation, the layout and design of public spaces will be affected to a large extent to maintain social distancing. What are your thoughts on this?
Thomas Balsley: We have always designed public spaces with a broad range of scaled and experiential spaces, ranging from large open multi-purpose spaces for gathering and events to smaller connected intimate ones. This pre-Covid-19 approach is now proving to be an ideal park venue for social distancing as needed.
SCALE: In 2016 SWA and Thomas Balsley Associates came together to form SWA/Balsley. What brought about this collaboration? Do you have any upcoming exciting projects that we can keep an eye out for?
Thomas Balsley: The new SWA/Balsley brings together the largest U.S. firm with the deepest thought leadership resources with an award-winning and nationally renowned urban-centric studio. In addition to numerous new urban parks and waterfronts in the U.S., we continue to expand the public’s imagination with competition winners at Paveletskaya Park in Moscow, Maashaven Park in Rotterdam, and SIPG Harbor City Parks in Shanghai
Maashaven Park in Rotterdam: Identified by the City as one of the Big Five (open space projects), the conceptual master plan for Park Maashaven will create a much-needed central open space for the city’s south district, an industrial area along the waterfront that is home to a growing and increasingly diverse population.
Gantry Plaza State Park is the first phase of a twelve-block long system of parks on Long Island City’s East River shoreline. The trilogy of spaces—Gantry Plaza, interpretive garden, and lawn promontory—with their four distinctive piers and follies, have been carefully programmed and conceived to serve this broad constituency with a unique sequence of waterfront experiences.